Burying history? Workers begin destruction of Indian site in Oxford
by Dan Whisenhunt
Staff Writer
Jun 25, 2009 | 12643 views |  26 comments | 68 68 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A controversial stone mound sits atop a large hill behind the Oxford Exchange.  Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star/File
A controversial stone mound sits atop a large hill behind the Oxford Exchange. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star/File
OXFORD — It may be a site of importance to American Indians — possibly a burial ground — but to the city it's just a pile of dirt.

The city, through its Commercial Development Authority, hired a company to take down the hill located behind Target at the Oxford Exchange.

According to the Alabama Historical Commission's deputy state historic preservation officer the hill contains a stone mound American Indian site, the largest of its kind in the state.

Not for long. On Wednesday a piece of heavy equipment ripped dirt off the hill. It resembles a Mohawk on a bald head, a cluster of trees sticking up from the top of the bare red clay.

Oxford Mayor Leon Smith and City Project Manger Fred Denney say the site was only used to send smoke signals. It's a claim disputed by deputy state historic preservation officer Elizabeth Brown as a romantic idea based on Hollywood movies. Heflin resident Ron Terrell, whose mother was Cherokee Indian, said the dense forest at the time made the use of smoke signals unlikely.

The site is at least 1,500 years old according to Harry Holstein, Jacksonville State University professor of archaeology and anthropology. It was constructed during what is known as the Woodland era. Brown said it is the largest of its kind in the state.

Workers will use the dirt as fill material for a Sam's Club near the Oxford Exchange, Denney said.

The contract for the removal, according to Denny, is part of the $2.6 million Oxford CDA contract that went to Oxford-based Taylor Corp.

Attempts to reach a representative of Taylor Corp. for this story were unsuccessful.

There is some dispute about the historical significance of the site, but all parties involve agree it was created by American Indians. It is associated with the nearby Davis Farm, part of which is where the city plans its multi-million dollar sports complex. Holstein said more than likely the people who built the site lived there.

Holstein said the hill contains artifacts from the Woodland era.

"We discovered the site in 1996 and it is typical of a lot of other stone structure sites and mounds we've investigated," Holstein said "It tends to be Indian ceremonial and Indian burial mounds."

Brown said it may have contained remains at one time, but the high acidity of the soil made the odds of finding them unlikely.

Smith spoke about phone calls he received about the hill demolition before Tuesday's City Council meeting. He said people claiming to be Indian chiefs contacted him with their concerns.

"I said, 'First of all it's not a burial ground,'" Smith said. "'It ain't never been a burial ground. It was for (smoke) signals.'"

Smith said the city hired the University of Alabama to conduct a study on the site. Denney said the report was ordered to determine if anything needed to be preserved but said the report found very little. A letter Brown co-signed notes the university's findings, but said the site still should be considered for inclusion on the National Register of Historic places.

"As we have from the beginning, we recommend preservation in place for this significant resource," the letter says.

Smith said he is not worried about finding remains there. But, for the sake of argument, if bodies are found he said the city won't alter its plans.

"We want to take care of people's remains," Smith said. "That can be moved. What it's going to be is more prettier than it is today."

Monty Clendenin, a Presbyterian minister in Anniston who advocates for American Indian issues, said Holstein contacted him about Oxford's site. He said he alerted tribes outside the state and received a significant response.

Terrell encouraged the city to leave it alone.

"I've taken an interest in it because I think American Indians have taken enough crap," he said.

Brown said disagreements between her office and people who conduct these studies are not uncommon. She said there is often a disconnect between the academic and real world in the interpretation of how important an archeological site is.

"The group we've been dealing with is the CDA and they see the highest and best use is with commercial development," she said.

But the destruction of the site disappoints her.

"I'm really sad this is happening," Brown said. "How many things do we have in Alabama that date back to B.C. that are built by the hand of man? Not many."
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